Tag Archives: Aaron Shurin

“Cc…: CCC,” part 1

As I wind down the project of making most of the manuscript of The Brevity of Life public in the form of a series of blog posts, in preparation for some research and writing in a different vein, I feel compelled to add to the chapters already reproduced a final postscript of sorts, which is arguably the most valuable part of the book in its historiographic function.  It takes the form of an e-mail exchange that took place between July and September of 2002, initiated by me and made possible by Gregg Bordowitz, John Greyson, Jack Lewis and Kendall Thomas, who generously agreed to take part.  I will record it in this and the next several posts, under the title “Cc…:  CCC.”  The “Cc” is self-evidently grounded in the structure and operation of a group e-mail exchange.  “CCC” is an acronym for “complex continuing care,” the parlance commonly used in North American tertiary care centers to designate a relative level of medical intervention (relative to “acute care,” for example, or “sub-acute care”).  The process of designating such levels of care involves “RIW,” short for “relative intensity weighting,” and is intimately associated with resource allocation.  In the Canadian public health care system, level-of-care designations derive from an assessment of the clinical and medical supports required to treat a particular “case mix.”

The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge, a token of the future.    

 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever:  A Freudian Impression, 1995, 18

Chiefly on the basis of the five exemplary instances they analyze [Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Derek Jarman, Herve Guibert, Aaron Shurin and Stephen Andrews], the foregoing posts make the case that in order to read what HIV/AIDS makes legible we must first of all and among other things recognize the differential temporalities inscribed in the virus and the epidemic-turned-pandemic, and likewise in their artifactual remains.  The wager that underwrites The Brevity of Life is that only a labour of reading attentive to the multiple specific structures and operations of time enables a responsible reconsideration, now and henceforth, of the grave challenges with which the global crisis persists in confronting us.

In making public the exchange transcribed in the following posts, the participants ask the reader to take account of the complex temporalities that traverse it.  Derek Jarman’s reflections on the difficulty of translating HIV/AIDS, whether in autobiographical or more broadly historiographical terms, onto film may help make legible here a fundamental incommensurability between the multiple temporalities of a pandemic that continues to outstrip our best efforts to make sense of what is occurring today (and what it may portend for the future) and a mode of production – in this case, electronic mail – whose impact over time remains, for us, an open question.  As Derrida observes in Archive Fever,

Electronic mail today, even more than the fax, is on the way to transforming the entire public and private space of humanity, and first of all the limit between the private, the secret (private or public), and the public or the phenomenal.  It is not only a technique, in the ordinary and limited sense of the term:  at an unprecedented rhythm, in quasi-instantaneous fashion, this instrumental possibility of production, of printing, of conservation, and of destruction of the archive must inevitably be accompanied by juridical and thus political transformations.  [17]

With much at stake – psychically, socially, politically – the participants in this exchange accepted the risks entailed in the terms of a tacit contract struck first of all among themselves, but in effect with their eventual readers as well.  The willingness of Gregg Bordowitz, John Greyson, Jack Lewis and Kendall Thomas to take part, in the knowledge that these virtual communications circulated initially among a handful of trusted friends and comrades in the spirit of a conversation would be transcribed and subsequently consigned to the public sphere bespeaks an extraordinary generosity, a readiness to assume the attendant burdens (among them, perhaps,a sense of vulnerability, an unaccustomed hesitancy, an unanticipated resistance to the format) for the sake of the matter at hand.

“I wonder if any of this will be remembered; probably not.”  Jarman’s musing in the journal entry that serves as the epigraph to “Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s Blue, Part 1), brought to bear on e-mail communications, might translate as a kind of optimism according to which we typically assume that the electronic script on which we are increasingly reliant is invariably ephemeral, short-lived, impermanent, never fully realized – indeed, that it is bound to disappear, sooner rather than later, that it is in the process of disappearing even as we hit “Send.”  Our utilization of a postal technology that seems to court oblivion opens up a certain freedom to muse, to hypothesize, to risk the kinds of formulations that may or may not stand the test of time, and do not pretend otherwise.

The participants can only hope, then, that readers of their exchange will respect the terms of the contract on which it rests, however uneasily:  that the latter will assume responsibility for discerning and seeking to negotiate the variable temporalities and rhythms involved, and honour the spirit in which this joint venture was undertaken.

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 5)

2.  As the examples enlisted in the foregoing posts eloquently demonstrate, the need to tell time is also the need to attest, to testify in words and images not just to a time that is, as Derek Jarman has it, “all awry,” but to an unfolding history that depends upon such testimony for its own survival in collective memory.  The tasks of writing and reading the historiography of HIV/AIDS were outlined in advance by Walter Benjamin, who summoned us, prospective readers of his theses “On the Concept of History,” to recognize in the image of the past what urgently concerns our own present, lest it disappear, perhaps irretrievably.  

Paul Klee, "Angelus Novus"

Writing decades later in his capacity as witness to the pandemic’s devastation, Aaron Shurin likewise proposes to read and record “the process of history itself disappearing,” in an effort to “turn it around.”  Like Herve Guibert’s autothanatographical roman, like the giveaway paper stacks and candy spills proffered by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, like Stephen Andrews’ “Untitled” (2000-2001), with its poignant and pointed citation of Jarman’s Blue, Shurin’s Unbound can claim to be of AIDS, with the full force of the partitive. 

Invoking “the oracular remark of the greatest of poets,” which has itself effectively disappeared, leaving our posterity only the barest, most prosaic traces of its former glory, Seneca ventures in “De brevitate vitae” that “‘It is but a small part of life we really live.’  Indeed, all the rest is not life, but merely time.”  The foregoing posts drawn from the manuscript of The Brevity of Life urge with all due humility that it is time that we have interminably to tell in our attempts to reckon with what we have come (only belatedly) to call AIDS.

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 1)

In the context of the preceding posts drawn from the manuscript of The Brevity of Life:  What AIDS Makes Legible,  I am tempted to engage another example, one more instance of an artifactual remnant of the pandemic to date in yet another medium, and within it a genre, whose impact and longevity seem destined to be of the slightest.

In an episode of the television series The West Wing, broadcast by NBC in October, 2000 under the title “In this White House” [season 2, episode 4], one of the multiple subplots evoked some of the medical, economic and geopolitical stakes of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa.  Particularly telling were two scenes organized around a meeting in which the White House communications director (Toby) and the assistant chief of staff (Josh) sought to broker an agreement between the president of a fictitious African nation and the heads of several major pharmaceutical corporations.  In each of the scenes, the tense conversation around the table was further unsettled by the ongoing, not-quite-simultaneous two-way translation provided by the president’s aide.

Josh:  How much would it cost for you to provide free drugs to the Sealese Republic, Kenya and the Republic of Equatorial Kundu?

Pharmaceutical executive:  I have no idea.

Josh:  Why not?  We’re talking about 130,000 patients, 200 milligram pills three times a day, every day.  What’s the x factor?

Executive:  We don’t know how long they’ll live.

Toby:  We know where.

In this equation, whose stakes are nothing short of life and death, the crucial variable proves to be time:  specifically, time as duration, as the “how long” inscribed in the life expectancies of the hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of lives that, painfully and shamefully, depend on the outcome of such conversations around such tables.

(Writing late in October 2002 under the title “Where Are We?”, John Berger provides an eloquent analysis of the pain and the shame in question, which saturate and perhaps exceed the history of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Everyone knows that pain is endemic to life, and wants to forget this or relativize it.  All the variants of the myth of a Fall from the Golden Age, before pain existed, are an attempt to relativize the pain suffered on earth.  So too is the invention of Hell, the adjacent kingdom of pain-as-punishment.  Likewise the discovery of sacrifice.  And later, much later, the principle of Forgiveness.  One could argue that philosophy began with the question:  why pain?

Yet when all this has been said, the present pain of living in the world is perhaps in some ways unprecedented.  Consumerist ideology, which has become the most powerful and invasive on the planet, sets out to persuade us that pain is an accident, something that we can insure against.  This is the logical basis for the ideology’s pitilessness.

I write in the night, although it is daytime.  A day in early October 2002….  I write in a night of shame.

By shame I do not mean individual guilt.  Shame, as I am coming to understand it, is a species feeling which, in the long run, corrodes the capacity for hope and prevents us looking far ahead.  We look down at our feet, thinking only of the next small step.

People everywhere under very different conditions are asking themselves:  Where are we?  The question is historical not geographical.  What are we living through?  Where are we being taken?  What have we lost?  How to continue without a plausible vision of the future?  Why have we lost any view of what is beyond a lifetime?….

The shame begins with the contestation (which we all acknowledge somewhere but, out of powerlessness, dismiss) that much of the present suffering could be alleviated or avoided if certain realistic and relatively simple decisions were taken.  There is a very direct relation today between the minutes of meetings and minutes of agony.

Does anyone deserve to be condemned to certain death simply because they don’t have access to treatment which would cost less than $2 a day?  That was a question posed by the director-general of the World Health Organization last July [2002].  She was talking about the AIDS epidemic, in Africa and elsewhere, in which an estimated 68 million people will die within the next eighteen years.  I’m talking about the pain of living in the present world. [John Berger, “Where Are We?”, Harper’s March 2003, 13-14, emphasis added])

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‘what history teaches,’ part 8

In the text of “Generation,” what constitutes a memorial, a legacy, a historiography is an allegorical reinscription, exemplified in the San Francisco wind and windfall (the latter in both its senses, literal and figurative:  as the material evidence of the wind’s passing, and as a sudden or unexpected acquisition or advantage):  “A hundred years was lost, but the integrity with which their falling rewrote the landscape drew me to their monumental sides again and again to gape.  (The sound they must have made I’m glad I didn’t hear.)  The speed and scale of the devastation excited me even as I mourned the losses:  so big I couldn’t blink away the incontrovertible facts.  I wanted the hugeness and the solidity of the mess, the grim external confirmation, the proud physicality literally shaken to its roots” (86).  The rewritten landscape also serves as the scene of a telling encounter in a San Francisco park “famously – famously! – known for casual sex, though it’s been drastically pruned by AIDS, by which I mean not only that its practitioners have dwindled, but that the censors and jurists early on tried to garden away the underbrush that offered pagan cover to public acts” (87).  [Derek Jarman makes a comparable observation about London’s Hampstead Heath, “where there has been another massacre of holly bushes by the moral guardians.  It’s sad to see the place raped by the city which now condemns the old trees to the bonfire if people make love under their branches” (Smiling in Slow Motion, 177).]  In this park already “pruned” by AIDS and further harassed by the winds,

A man I knew minimally – we never really spoke – approached and kept my eyes.  I’ve seen him for fifteen years along a variety of erotic routes.  He paused to talk about the weather – you do that in San Francisco because you like to show off your luck at living here – and he eyed the tumble of branches, the inviting trouble they’d made.  He thought there might be human cover there too, and chuckled at the fortuitous change.  The place is ghosted – we both knew that – it was nice to contemplate a turn.  “It’s good to see you,” he said pointedly, far more direct than either of us expected, “I mean there’s so few of us left.  It’s good to see you still around,” by which he meant “alive.”  [88]

In the wake of the San Francisco windstorm (it might have been an earthquake), the quasi-strangers come together, by way of an unexpectedly direct address, as witnesses, survivors, veterans – at least as of 1996, the date that punctuates “Generation,” the closing chapter of Unbound:  A Book of AIDS.

Here again, Shurin’s text is dated, and in more senses than one, thanks to the double functioning in English among other languages of the verb “to date”:  Transitively, one dates a text; intransitively, a text dates when it ages, whether well or poorly – in other words, when it acquires a history.  The dating of “Generation,” for example, gives us to read the remarking of a commemorable provenance:  San Francisco, 1996, a year in which the introduction of more effective antiretroviral therapies led some, “contemplat[ing] a turn,” to invoke (not for the first time) the imminent prospect of a cure, in what would soon enough prove a false promise.  Thus the date makes the text newly legible for us, here and now, in our finite outliving of the pandemic.

If reading in the archive of HIV/AIDS demands a reckoning with such dates, it is here a matter of a deliberate practice of dating that bears spectral witness to “the process of history itself disappearing” in an effort to turn it around.

VOICE:  This is a story about becoming a story.  It has to be told.  It has to be put in the past….

It’s a story about becoming the past….

NEY:  It has to be told.

VOICE:  It has to pass through.  Telling turns it around.

It doesn’t disappear.

NEY:  It turns around.

VOICE:  It begins again, and it turns around….

NEY:  It turns into the past….  [“TURNAROUND, a solo dance with voice” (1993)]

At every turn, Unbound:  A Book of AIDS summons those of us who have so far survived what has come to pass to make the effort required to read this receding past even as it threatens to disappear before our eyes.  For “all persons of voice (first, second, and third)” remain at risk:  “given its spatial and temporal dimensions, its structure of relays and delays, no human being is ever safe from AIDS” (Derrida, “Rhetoric of Drugs,” 251).  Now and henceforth, lives depend on our recognition of this overwhelming fact of life.

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‘what history teaches,’ part 7

The survivor’s testimony, then, is a matter of response and responsibility.  In “Some Haunting,” the phantom address elicits, by way of response on Shurin’s part, a question – “How do I serve this dead young man?” – that again summons the text of the past, estranging and reconstituting Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:  “I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men / and women.”  When, as in this instance, reading and writing “the process of history itself disappearing” demand that we translate the hints, the fleeting fragments afforded by the past, poetics and historiography prove inseparable.

Unbound puts “Song of Myself” in quotation marks once more in its final chapter, dated 1996 and entitled “Generation.”  It recounts the aftermath, or more properly the wake, of a windstorm that raged through San Francisco “late in the night of December 12, 1995”:  “The wind tore deep at the earth as if it wanted to get in:  a thousand trees uprooted or broken in Golden Gate Park, hundreds elsewhere pulled out by their hair….  The city whose trees are reaching maturity together woke to a loss that was generational:  not once in a lifetime, but a unified swath of lifetime lost” (85).

Confronted with this violation of life expectancy, Shurin has recourse, again, to Whitman:  “It was grass growing on top of the dying trunk that originally drew my pen, preposterous and fertile like Whitman saw it:  ‘And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves. / Tenderly will I use you curling grass, / It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men'” (88).  Resituated in their context in “Song of Myself” (whose several versions are also variously dated, in the ten editions of Leaves of Grass published from 1855 to 1897), the lines resonate further:

A child said What is the grass?  Fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child?  I do not know what it is, any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means….

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,

It may be if I had known them I would have loved them.

With the confession that “I do not know what it is,” the tentative reiteration of “I guess” and “it may be,” the “I” in “Song of Myself” speculates from before or beyond certain knowledge, and considers a range of possible responses to the child’s question about the grass.  But Unbound‘s first person, writing and citing in a time of crisis, seizes on Whitman’s “now” – “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves” – recognizes and reads it, allegorically, as part of an effort to make sense of the devastating windstorm and what it figures.  As in Whitman’s “Calamus,” the body is here “metaphorized as leaves, roots, blossoms, scented herbage, live oak, moss, vines and buds” – so much windfall in the wake of the savage weather.  [In the final paragraph of “Generation,” Shurin writes:  “A reminiscent wind has whipped up, strewing the gleaming street with papers and leaves, anything that rises.  I imagine a series of substitutions which stand for flight:  black crow, broomstick, milkweed, vapor trail, pterodactyl, red balloon, oak pollen, helicopter, luna moth, dust mote, box kite, June bug, rocket man, gazelle.  The wind takes them all” (89).]  “I pushed the ruin of the storm to mean the ruin I needed.  What constitutes a memorial, a legacy?  Where do the bodies go I don’t see go – no graves, no burning ghats – and how do they reseed a city lost to loss?” (88).

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‘what history teaches,’ part 6

The epigraph to the essay “Some Haunting,” dated 1994, cites the Joyce of Ulysses alluding to the Shakespeare of Hamlet:  “He is a ghost, a shadow now, the wind by Elsinore’s rocks or what you will, the sea’s voice, a voice heard only in the heart of him who is the substance of his shadow” (66).  The quotation opens Shurin’s evocation of his own ghosts (if they are his):

I’m no longer afraid these AIDS apparitions might be real (they’ve lost the advantage of surprise), but my subsequent clench at the gut or failing of the knees shows a terror more truculent than fear of the Impossible.  (The Impossible?  What, anymore, is that?)  These particular visitations – these “voices heard in the heart of him” – pursue.  They know my name, and my whole shaken body responds to their address….  The ghosts who walk in my city (my ghostly city) are cast as vividly as any childhood stored in a dipped madeleine – with that fleeting precision memory affords, and the rubbed-out edges it requires.  And they rise just as suddenly….  They flash and seize….  These visions are gone in the next shift of wind, of course….  Too late for me, who have been stuck by recognition, a madeleine-rush of memory that comes, alas, too frequently to be savored, but whose measure is too steady to be ignored.

I am haunted.  [66-67]**

The ghost, the shadow, the wind, the sea’s voice – always just gone – that pursue Shurin and address him by name again figure a demand made by the past on the present:  pay attention as if your life depended on it, recognize as your own concern what threatens to disappear irretrievably.  The sheer force of this demand disrupts the complacency of memory and amnesia alike.  As William Haver observes in the context of his own consideration of Unbound, “The ghost is the figure of what we can never quite forget altogether, but also of that which memory can never satisfactorily recover:  the figure of the impossibility of forgetting what we have forgotten.  The ghost is the figure of what disrupts every attempt at historiographical pacification” (unpublished ms., 12).  And the same claim might be made for citation:  for example, the citation of the past readable in a photograph of the author and his friends at the Gay Freedom Day celebration in Golden Gate Park in 1975.  Contemplating an image of the past twenty years later under the title “Shifting Paradise,” Shurin writes:

…one no longer knows the actual from the iconic – the icon becomes the actual!  Where physical distance blurs temporal distance refines.  This much has not shifted:  on a shelf a lucite frame encodes the past in a photo – unregenerate – as a paradise of pure loss.

But something has shifted:  the resonant image, gingerly holding its chemical colors against the fading power of sunlight, remains the same, but the very nature of paradise has changed.  Even while – eyes dewy – focused back on primal beauty, the unforeseen – HIV – transfigures sight, beholder and beheld.  “This sceptered isle,” Shakespeare’s Gaunt has said, “This fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection.”  The magic island is flooded in a breakaway recursive tide; what did not hold – infected – returns to the image of origin.  (78)***

What follows this reflection on the fading photograph that cites a paradise now irretrievably lost is a parenthetical quotation from Gertrude Stein, the concluding lines of a remarkable poem with the hypothetical title “If I Told Him” (and the more assured subtitle “A Completed Portrait of Picasso”):  “Let me recite what history teaches.  History teaches” (78).  This history lesson, in the form of a citation that itself inscribes, or performs, citation, quoting itself as it unfolds, delivers not meaning, but what Unbound elsewhere terms “enactment” (35), demarcating the properly ethical dimension of its poetics and its historiography.

__________

** The haunting of the survivor is powerfully figured by John Greyson in “Overtaken,” Alphabet City 7 (“Social Insecurity”), 2000, 68-79.

*** In In the Event:  Reading Journalism, Reading Theory, I propose that “the photographic image takes place in the mode of a pledge:  Everything may be preserved for history.  But if what is preserved is in the process of disappearing, perhaps what is kept is only the promise”  (Stanford UP, 1999, 3).

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‘what history teaches,’ part 5

If City of Men takes citation to a provocative extreme, audaciously rewriting Whitman in his own words (Whitman was of course continually rewriting himself, for example in his ongoing revisions to Leaves of Grass), the citational gesture and its allegorical structure are also crucial to reading Unbound as a poetics and a historiography of AIDS.  In Shurin’s formulation of his project in “Inscribing AIDS:  A Reflexive Poetics” (1995), he proposes to

estrange and reconstitute Whitman’s Civil War vocabulary, pushing images of battle and comradely witness to a newly disoriented wailing point.  In “Human Immune” [1993], the speaking subject inhabits experience from simultaneous locations as if all persons of voice (first, second, and third) are equally at risk.  The poem proceeds formally via an epidemiological model:  each “stanza” inexorably increases in length by one line, an expanding vortex.  Hell is round, the motif…may bear Dante’s centripetal impasse, but also dimensionalizes AIDS from the personal to the historical:  the curve one rounds is also around one, surrounding, a world.  For the gay community, this circumnavigate descent can be read as the process of history itself disappearing.  [74]

In these terms, the history summoned in the culling and grafting, the estranging and reconstituting of citation is itself in the process of disappearing, prematurely, perhaps irrevocably.  “Inscribing AIDS” thus recalls the threat to historiography identified in Walter Benjamin’s fifth thesis On the Concept of History:  “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again…. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”  If the witness who reads the process of history itself disappearing is haunted by images of the past (and ghosts abound in Unbound), the text of his testimony is likewise haunted by prior texts that are themselves commemorated even as they are enlisted in a work of commemoration.

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